Monday, 11 December 2017

Super Crooks

Mark Millar & Leinil Yu Super Crooks (2012)
X-Men meets Ocean's Eleven it says here. I haven't seen Ocean's Eleven, but an assortment of whining internet wankers all seem to think Super Crooks is essentially Ocean's Eleven with capes and powers. As with many of Mark Millar's better works, it's snappy and faintly outrageous in the same way as Tarantino's films were once snappy and faintly outrageous. Had a copy of Super Crooks fallen through a time crevice and ended up back in the year 1975, Millar's oeuvre would now be hailed as works of genius in the same breath as those of Liberatore, Jodorowsky, Bilal, and all of those Métal Hurlant guys - I mean at least providing no-one paid too much attention to his Marvel stuff. Both the art and narrative are beautiful and lack any evidence of either over-exertion or struggle. It's the usual tale of good and evil told in relative terms with a bit of the Robin Hood stuff going on, and Millar makes it feel like it's an entirely new thing, as always. I know he has his detractors, and that some of the criticism is justified, but it's hard to give too much of a shit when he's capable of this sort of quality.

And All Around Was Darkness

Gregory Bull & Mike Dines (editors) And All Around Was Darkness (2017)
This is another collection in the general spirit of 2014's Tales from the Punkside, a smaller, numbered edition with badges but a larger format more closely resembling an issue of Re/Search. With a full on raging psychopath in the White House, Brexit, and a general public which seems to have decided that the Nazis were actually the good guys all along, we probably need this sort of thing more than ever; this sort of thing being a timely reminder of options beyond sitting on your arse and passively consuming until you eventually die of cancer from all those cheeseburgers. As with Tales from the Punkside, this book collects anecdotal material and accounts from around the anarcho-punk years of individuals, fanzines, and bands inspired by Crass, amongst others, some academic in spirit, others more freewheeling. It's everything from personal revelations brought on by noisy music, to gluing the locks at one's school, to taking to the streets and demonstrating against the fur trade. I was on the periphery of some of this, had a fair few of the fanzines mentioned, and was even in a subsequent incarnation of one of the bands, so it's impossible for me to be entirely objective about the collection even without glancing down the list of contributors and realising that I know at least four in something resembling a social context.

I used to write to Alan Rider of Adventures in Reality many years ago and ended up living in the same city, albeit after he'd moved away, so there was enough in his contribution to fill at least three or four evenings of conversation down the pub; and I ended up playing guitar in a band for which Chris Low had been drummer, which was how I met Ted Curtis, and Nick Sims whom both Ted and Anth Palmer write about; and then I encountered Phil Hedgehog more recently when I contributed to an issue of Poot! comic, plus he seems to know the Cravats etc. etc. Happily most of the stuff written by persons to whom I'm not socially connected seems to be of similar high and generally fascinating quality. It seems fair to say that something has really been captured and encapsulated in this collection.

In fact it's been encapsulated so well as to encompass material representing aspects of the anarcho-punk scene which I actively disliked, and so found myself skipping a couple of contributions in the general vicinity of the Green Anarchist material; but it would be a boring old world if we all liked the same thing, as they say. Nevertheless, that which I like about this book outweighs that with which I had any sort of problem, and the problem I had in itself speaks well of Bull and Dines commitment to presenting a broad cross section of varying perspectives, so I'm not complaining; and I also realise I should probably get around to buying that album by the Mob.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Earth's Last Fortress

A.E. van Vogt Earth's Last Fortress (1960)
I assumed this was the original printing of Children of Tomorrow under a different name, but picked it up anyway. It turns out to be the novel I've already read as Masters of Time. In fact I vaguely recall having read Masters of Time with the feeling I'd already read it under another name, yet I can find nothing to support this on the internet beyond that it was originally a short story called Recruiting Station which doesn't ring any bells at all. So I've a feeling I've read this one three times now, but I don't know, although the confusion seems par for the course with van Vogt. It could just be the stark impact of the opening paragraph leaving me with an impression of more familiarity than is actually the case.

She didn't dare! Suddenly, the night was a cold, enveloping thing. The edge of the broad, black river gurgled evilly at her feet as if, now that she had changed her mind, it hungered for her.

Her foot slipped on the wet, sloping ground; and her thoughts grew blurred with the terrible senseless fear that things were reaching out of the night, trying to drown her now against her will. She fought up the bank, and slumped breathless onto the nearest park bench, coldly furious with her fear. Dully, she watched the gaunt man come along the pathway past the light standard. So sluggish was her mind that she was not aware of surprise when she realised he was coming straight toward her.

Of course, it would be thrown out of a writing class for crimes against literature, which really says more about writing classes and literary conventions than it does about Alfred Elton.

Earth's Last Fortress is about a war fought across all of time and space wherein the all-powerful forces of the Glorious recruit combatants from each era of human history, and if you want to pretend this was a prequel to Faction Paradox, it actually sort of works. Beyond that, I couldn't really tell what it was about the last time I read it, or possibly the last two times, not with much conviction; but on this occasion I believe I've found the key.

The words scarcely penetrated, though all the sense strained through, somehow. His mind was like an enormous weight, dragging at one thought, one hope. He said, fighting for calmness now, 'Commander, by your manner to this tentacle and its master, I can see that you have long ago ceased to follow its conclusions literally. Why? Because it's inhuman. The Observer is a great reservoir of facts that can be coordinated on any subject, but it is limited by the facts it knows. It's a machine, and, while it may be logical to destroy me before you leave the ship, you know and I know that it is neither necessary nor just, and what is overwhelmingly more important, it can do no harm to hold me prisoner, and make arrangements for a Planetarian to examine the origin of the message that came to me.'

He finished in a quiet, confident tone. 'Captain, from what one of the men told me, you're from the 2000s AD. I'll wager they still had horse races in your day. I'll wager, furthermore, that no machine could ever understand a man getting a hunch and betting his bottom dollar on a dark horse. You've already been illogical in not shooting me at sight, as you threatened on the communicator; in not leaving the ship as the Observer advised; in letting me talk here even as the attack on your enemies is beginning—for there is an attack of some kind, and it's got the best brain on this ship behind it. But that's unimportant because you're going to abandon ship. What is important is this: You must carry your illogic to its logical conclusion. Retrieve your prestige, depend for once in this barren life here on luck and luck alone.'

Last time I tried to read this I didn't come away with much more than a basic anti-authoritarian message, but now I recognise a variation on one of van Vogt's most common themes, namely the opposition of conventional linear logic to the non-Aristotelian ideas he seems to have picked up from Korzybski's general semantics. Actually, I'm half inclined to wonder if this story, or at least this version of the story might not have been informed by van Vogt's falling out with L. Ron Hubbard's increasingly authoritarian promotion of Dianetics through the newly inaugurated Church of Scientology. I'm not entirely sure the dates add up, unless van Vogt undertook any rewriting when this one came to be published under this new title, and similarly I don't know much about van Vogt's involvement with Dianetics or his reasons for severing ties with Hubbard in the early sixties; but nevertheless I found myself wondering whether the Glorious might not serve as allegory to where Hubbard took what van Vogt saw as a useful psychological methodology. They seem to represent inhuman systems imposed upon human thought, eugenics, and the negation of individual will, although these things are of course similarly associated with aspirant utopian political systems arisen in the wake of the second world war, to which van Vogt also had a stated objection.

I probably got more from this reading than on previous occasions, but still found it became somewhat knotted up in its own convoluted narrative by about a third of the way through; and yet it remains enjoyable because baffling van Vogt is often more rewarding, or at least more thought provoking, than the more lucid tales of a lesser author.

Monday, 4 December 2017


Cordwainer Smith Stardreamer (1971)
I'm a bit mystified as to why it should have taken me so long to stumble across this guy's work. I've known his name for some time, although I'm not sure why given his absence from the many science-fiction anthologies I've read over the years, right up until last month when his Alpha Ralpha Boulevard stamped itself firmly on my consciousness. He clearly had a reputation, fans, and an established body of highly distinctive work, so who knows? Maybe he was just a bit too weird to have ended up sandwiched between Isaac Asimov and Murray Leinster in the sort of collections I routinely read.

Cordwainer Smith turns out to have been the pen name of one Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger, a prolific author who employed various pseudonyms whilst working in adjacent genres. Significantly he was additionally a keen scholar of Chinese culture and tradition through it having played a role in his upbringing, which doubtless accounts for the form taken by his science-fiction, which has the feeling of traditional Buddhist parables in certain respects.

Stardreamer posthumously collects eight short stories, most taking place within the same peculiar mythology, a future universe governed by something called the Instrumentality of Mankind, which is described and developed with a rare literary flourish suggestive of Ursula LeGuin or more recent authors such as Iain M. Banks or China Miéville. The narrative has a beautiful, poetic flow suggestive of something which feels substantially philosophical on some level, yet without being a bore about it.

This was a delight to read from start to finish. I wish someone had told me about this guy sooner.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Maigret Meets a Milord

Georges Simenon Maigret Meets a Milord (1931)
Originally published in French as Le Charretier de la Providence, the retitling of this one seems bizarre even by the standards of this series of translations; but milord is apparently a colloquial French term for an upper-class English tourist encountered in the French countryside, derived - as I suppose seems obvious - from my lord or m'lud, which is what English people say to their betters. I didn't really have plans to read any more Maigret books seeing as there's about a million of them and I'm way out of my comfort zone with detective fiction, but I found this alongside Maigret Stonewalled in Half Price for an improbable couple of dollars each, original Penguin editions from the sixties, and it would have seemed weird to not buy them.

I suppose having been written back in simpler times, there was less pressure for Simenon to thread his amiable creation through a cat's cradle of plot twists, sleight of hand, and ingenious deduction, and essentially what we have here is a man looking at a bunch of suspects for a little while and then announcing which one of them did it. This suits me fine as I've never been any good at crossword puzzles, and the atmosphere alone is enough to ensure my interest. For something so reliant on atmosphere, or at least reliant upon my picking up on the same, it's surprising how much is achieved by either Simenon's tight, undemonstrative prose, or possibly the tight, undemonstrative prose of Robert Baldick, his translator. There's very little fat here, no padding whatsoever, just wistful utilitarian descriptions bordering on the mathematical, pinning out the details of each scene with every so often a sudden, unexpected flash of the poetic.

And Maigret imagined himself where the carter was, seeing the partition coated with resin on his right, with the whip hanging on a twisted nail, the tin cup hooked on to another, a patch of sky between the boards above, and on the right the horses' muscular croppers.

The whole scene gave off animal warmth, a sensation of full-blooded life which took one by the throat like the harsh wine of certain hillsides.

Reaching the end of the novel we come to a description of a motor-driven propeller moving a boat through water, which is oddly the first description of anything particularly technological, excepting a couple of telephone calls and Maigret getting around on a borrowed bicycle. The appeal of this novel may therefore be, at least for me, its invocation of a world very much like the one of my childhood, muddy waterways below cold, grey European skies containing not one single cellphone signal. This is a quiet, grey world with not even the unveiling of the murderer disturbing the sombre calm, instead bringing only sadness, regret, and other seemingly Gallic moods recalling the less colourful impressionist landscapes. The novel might be tough going were it much longer than one-hundred pages, but as it stands Maigret Meets a Milord seems to represent a kind of perfection in its own quiet way.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Old Records Never Die

Eric Spitznagel Old Records Never Die (2016)
I vaguely remember a point at which I made a vow to avoid the traditional mid-life crisis, mainly due to how terminally wanky it always looked on other people. That said, having recently passed the age of fifty, I'm aware of having spent a lot of time rummaging around in my youth. I've never been very good at throwing anything away, and I've always been fairly organised with a tendency to assemble the detritus of being alive according to something resembling a system, and so I've used up much of the last couple of years working on a forensic reconstruction of my own existence, something I will eventually self-publish purely for the sake of a point of focus towards which I can work. I've been transcribing material from old diaries, notebooks, correspondence, and even copies of spoken tape letters I've sent to people. I don't think of this exercise as nostalgia because frankly, most of my life has been disappointing up until recent times - not anything I'd wish to relive - and at the risk of sounding boastful, my life has been generally fucking amazing since about 2011; so it's more like a mapping project, something which answers the question, how did I get here? My past occurred so long ago in subjective terms that it may as well have happened to someone else, which is why I find it so fascinating now.

For reasons which clearly relate to the above, albeit by means I find difficult to define with any degree of clarity, I've tended to steer clear of books by Nick Hornby, notably High Fidelity, or things in that spirit: Stuart Maconie and Peter Kay chortling over Wacky Races and Curly Wurly. I may be wrong about Hornby, but it seems sappy and sentimental to me, even slightly unhealthy. The closest I came was reading Andrew Collins' excruciatingly twee Where Did It All Go Right?, one of the worst books I've ever read and yet another drearily self-deprecating account of growing up in the seventies and having an hilarious punk hairstyle for a bit and failing to shag some girl and listening to the Smiths, because it's always the fucking Smiths.

Writing about music, or specifically about one's love of music, is an inevitably subjective undertaking because it would be pointless were it otherwise; which can additionally leave the writing in question somewhat reliant on whether or not the reader shares the same musical taste as the author, at least in cases where the author isn't up to much and you probably wouldn't be reading but for the fact that he also digs St. Winifred's School Choir. I still have Smiths records, and I can appreciate them, and How Soon is Now? was wonderful; but the first music I really began to take seriously as a kid seemed a bit more wide-ranging in certain respects, beginning with Devo - working through Crass and Killing Joke, probably ending up in the general vicinity of Throbbing Gristle. For the most part it was music beginning from the point of view that all western society is fucked, that we're all living a lie, and that maybe you need to face up to it, shithead.  Doubtless it all took itself too seriously, but that was part of its job. Then the Smiths turned up, and I recall the interviews about how they only wanted handsome people at their little pop concerts, and This Charming Man sounded like the theme tune to a kid's show, and although the second single actually had a tune, everything since has been a heavy sigh of my life is shit and I feel a bit sad. I don't understand how that could really have changed anyone's world, or how anyone could be satisfied with just that, and no-one who ever wrote about it has been able to explain it to me.

Old Records Never Die is the account of one man's mission to track down all the records of his youth, not just the songs, but the actual same copies rescued from dusty boxes in basements and thrift stores. Needless to say, I approached the book with some trepidation, reading mainly on the grounds of it having been a birthday present from my brother-in-law, a man of generally sound judgement. I still don't quite understand why Eric Spitznagel really needed to reunite with the copy of Kiss' Alive II on which his brother Mark had scrawled HANDS OFF!!! across the cover in ballpoint; and I had a tough time getting through the first couple of chapters worth of references to the Travelling Wilburys, Billy Joel, and other artists I'd rather not have to think about; but as the book finds its stride, it becomes clear that this is not about the music or fat old fuckers going misty-eyed over the malts and shakes of a sunnier age, not exactly. Spitznagel's quest is a genuinely bizarre one, almost a ritual working, not really trying to bring something back so much as to understand its power; and I can identify because it seems reminiscent of what I've been doing with all my own old crap. It doesn't really matter whether or not the Smiths changed anyone's life, and in any case Spitznagel writes about the change and how we understand it rather than the source of musical revelation. If anything, the sources of musical revelation seem the least important detail of whatever the guy is going through in this book, so it's communicated as what may as well be a universal experience. More than anything it reminds me of Harvey Pekar's wistful tales of stealing jazz records from a radio station or finding a cheap pair of Stetson shoes in Goodwill. It has a certain passion, a certain affection, but there's nothing sappy or sentimental here.

I still haven't read High Fidelity, although if it's anything like the film, then Old Records Never Die really isn't a particularly close relative. It's about much more, the entire experience of memory, and while it's often very, very funny, the gags come naturally as part of the discourse - none of that gormless chuckling over old photos in which people look a little bit different to how they do now.

This one has really surprised me.

Monday, 20 November 2017

All the Traps of Earth

Clifford D. Simak All the Traps of Earth (1962)
What with the Open Road reprints, it feels as though I've read quite a few of Simak's short stories of late, although of late is a relative term here given that I read I Am Crying All Inside back in March, 2016, and that was where I first came across Installment Plan and All the Traps of Earth, two of the six short stories gathered here - although apparently there were more in the hardback. Strangely, much as I appear to have enjoyed both of those first time around, my recollection of having read them is vague and based only on the familiarity of the titles. Either I'm getting old and my memory is beginning to go, or the tales in question simply had a greater impact this time around, for some reason.

It could be that I was simply in a frame of mind more conducive to reading Simak, or that - as seems more likely - there's just something about a collection such as this which leaves a bigger impression. It's a one shot rather than part of a daunting series comprising many, many volumes, just six great stories which someone or other picked as either the best or the best which worked together at time of publication; and there's the powerfully evocative cover; even the unfortunate fact of yellowed pages crumbling at the corners as I read them.

Whatever the reason, as a single volume this one serves as a powerful argument for Simak as one of the greatest in his field, and certainly top three. These six tales play very much to Simak's strengths, with my only possible gripe being that Installment Plan takes a little longer to get going than seems necessary - although once we hit the second chapter, all is well. The tone is pastoral, as one might reasonably expect, and yet there's very little repetition. Good Night, Mr. James suggests the influence of van Vogt with its central protagonist in constant motion through a mysterious urban landscape, in pursuit of something terrible whilst simultaneously struggling to recall the particulars of his own identity - which additionally suggests Philip K. Dick may have been taking notes at this point, both from this story and the peculiar Drop Dead with its surreal, dreamlike composite livestock. Simak populates his universe with regular people just trying to get by, and not a science hero nor even a big city swell in sight. The robots are also regular people just trying to get by, as are the aliens in most cases, and travel beyond the limits of Earth very much resembles the settlers of old striking out across the American west, although this time with a better developed sense of responsibility. Simak achieves a warm familiarity without ever quite getting too cosy, and the power of his tales is to be found in how this contrasts with where he sends his people, or his robots, or his aliens.

I'd argue that this might even be one of the best, most convincing, and satisfying collections of short science-fiction you're ever likely to read of any author. It might also be that I've simply over-appreciated something of quality after ploughing through Neil Gaiman's posture as storytelling, but whichever way you look at it, this really is a wonderful book.